Aboriginal Art at October Gallery, London (1998)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in Asian Art News, 8(6), page 69-70 in 1998.

Aboriginal Art at October Gallery

Aboriginal art is often a feast of color and abstracted forms, of striking diversity across regions and contemporary approaches, and saturated with local iconography which provides richness and context. The 40 works by artists from Australia’s Northern Territory, specifically Arnhem Land and Melville Island, illustrate their unique approaches and iconographies of the two regions, despite their relatively close proximity.

Until the last century, the artistic culture of Melville Island and nearby Bathurst Island remained comparatively isolated due to the treacherous strait which separates them from the mainland near Darwin. Stylistically, it is known for painted sculptures of birds, animals, and ancestral figures influences by traditional funeral sculpture.

In more recent times, the art community of Melville Island had seen the rapid adoption of modern artistic techniques and materials— including screen-printed cloth, batik, ceramics, printmaking and painting on paper and canvas, emphasizing a diversity of colorful, abstract, geometric compositions such as Connie Puruntatameri’s Jilamara (1998) and Amanda Baxter’s Arm Bands (Pamajini) (1998). Wooden Pukumani poles, erected around graves during a state of mourning, provided the inspiration for Ian Cook’s Mask (1997) and Matthew Freddy’s Mask Carving from Milakapiti (c.1997). Other artists participating in the show included Donna Burak, Theresa Burak, Irene Mungatopi, Nicholas Mario, Kaye Orsto, Francesca Puruntatameri, Karen Anne Puruntatameri, Maree Puruntatameri, Sheila Puruntatameri, Thecia Bernadetta Puruntatameri, Dianne Tipungwuti, and Maryanne Tungatalum.

In contrast, the art from Arnhem Land, located 250 miles east of Darwin, is strongly influenced by a rock painting tradition that is more that 40,000 years old: examples can be seen throughout the area’s central sandstone plateau. Drawing on this tradition and the natural environment, the artists produce works on paper and canvas of local plants and animals, as well as their cosmology and interactions with their spiritual world, often depicted in the regions unique “X-ray style.” Solomon Girrabul’s Creatures of the Arafura Swamp (1998) and Gary Djorlom Kangaroo of the Ubar Ceremony (1998) refer to their animals, humans, spirits, and cosmology in metamorphosis, presented in an organically flowing manner that plays on representation and flatness of form. Interestingly, the crosshatching technique is their signature.

Other artists from Arnhem Land represented included Djutjadjutya, Amy Gunawarri, Ruby Malangi, Djawida Nadjongorie, Ishmael Nawarridj, James Iyuna, Reggie Pengarte, and Boliny Wanambi.

The exhibition at the October Gallery was organized in collaboration with Indigenart in Western Australia and Aboriginal Fine Arts in Northern Territory. The exhibition was a visual feast that provided some of the more challenging work to be seen in London at the moment.